The Wrong Way to Boycott

In contrast to ineffective—or even unethical—actions targeting Russian culture and individuals, the Palestinian BDS campaign is a model of how to use boycott and divestment efforts strategically.

Yousef Munayyer
March 22, 2022

A sports bar in Michigan showcases a boycott of Russian vodka on March 13th, 2022.

Adam J. Dewey/NurPhoto via AP

For those of us who have advocated for the use of boycotts, divestment, and sanctions as tools to advance Palestinian rights only to be told that they are illegitimate, the international response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine highlights Western governments’ willingness to embrace these tactics when policymakers identify with the victims of a crisis. In the three weeks since the war began, 46 countries have imposed sanctions on Russia, and a broad range of corporate entities have moved to divest from the country or suspend operations there. Netflix paused its service; Starbucks shuttered its coffee shops; American, Delta, and United Airlines canceled their flights; energy giant Shell severed its partnership with the Russian Gazprom; financial entities from Deutsche Bank to Goldman Sachs announced they were “winding down” their business in the country. Meanwhile, impromptu boycotts of Russian products, or products perceived to be Russian, have swept Western nations: Americans have sought to show solidarity with Ukraine by dumping bottles of vodka and boycotting small businesses whose Russian-speaking owners may in fact be, say, Latvian, or Estonian, or even Ukrainian.

Some of these boycotts targeting Russia or Russians are misplaced, sloppy, ineffective, and even downright unethical. But that doesn’t mean that BDS tools shouldn’t be deployed in Russia, Palestine, or elsewhere. If anything, the BDS campaign that has emerged from a call by Palestinian civil society is a model of what it means to use boycotts, divestment, and sanctions in a careful and purposeful way. By analyzing the routinely maligned Palestinian call for BDS, we can derive lessons about the right and wrong way to employ these strategies.

The Palestinian call for boycotts, divestment, and sanctions was launched in 2005, decades after the Nakba of 1948—in which a significant majority of Palestine’s native inhabitants fled or were expelled from their homes by Zionist forces—and the military occupation of 1967. During this time, Palestinians witnessed two things: Israel’s continued campaign of expropriation and displacement in the entirety of the land between the river and the sea, and the complicity of the international state system in Israel’s crimes. Not only do the United States and its allies provide economic and military support for Israel ($4 billion in military financing annually from Washington alone), but Western nations led by the US have also prevented international institutions from seeking accountability for Israeli crimes. The BDS call was a direct response to the failure of the international system to deliver justice—a plea for solidarity from civil society, precisely because states had shut their ears to Palestinian cries. Organizers hoped this call and the resulting actions would begin to reshape politics so that one day state-level action could be possible.

Their approach speaks to a specific strategic interplay between the “B,” the “D,” and the “S” in the BDS call. Roughly speaking, boycotts are in the realm of individual action, divestment is in the realm of corporations or institutions, and sanctions are the domain of governments and policy makers. In a context where states are adversarial to accountability for Israel’s human rights violations, it is civil society that has the most room to create change, applying pressure using the tools of boycott and divestment. At the same time, the “B” and the “D” are far less likely than the “S” to impose significant costs. It is really when states enter the ring with comprehensive sanctions that the most meaningful pressure can be applied. That doesn’t mean that boycott and divestment are unimportant, but rather that we should think a bit differently about the role they play in the overall strategy.

Over years of following boycott and divestment efforts, I have observed that their impact far exceeds the dollars and cents they extract in lost revenue. Instead, the greatest contribution of these initiatives is that they force a conversation about accountability in spaces where those conversations would otherwise be absent, moving people to take action. I often think about the many churches that have passed divestment resolutions in some form, including the Presbyterian Church USA, the United Church of Christ, and the United Methodist Church. These decisions followed debates about Israel/Palestine at various national convenings often spread over the course of many years. How many people, places, and institutions engaged in thinking about Palestinians and their rights throughout this process? Whether a resolution ultimately passes or fails, the political education that takes place in the process of debating the issue would not be happening without these efforts. The same can be said for similar processes taking place on campuses and in private sector companies. Though those that call for BDS in American institutional life still face smears and backlash, the hope is that over time, these efforts can catalyze a broad-based shift in popular opinion that might force a conversation about accountability among government policymakers. In other words, the “B” and the “D” help make the “S” possible down the line.

All of this is fundamentally different from the dynamic that characterizes boycott, divestment, and sanctions related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. States already had several economic penalties against Russia on the books dating back to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. When this most recent invasion began, greater sanctions were announced from all corners of the globe. Over the course of the invasion, the White House has issued statements listing a range of steps it has taken, along with European partners, to sanction Russia: Russian banks were cut off from the international financial system. Russia’s ability to import and export goods was severely curtailed. Russia’s military and its military industry was hit with sanctions, as were individual Russian elites and their families. As a result, Russia’s currency tanked, interest rates and consumer prices skyrocketed, financial transactions became increasingly impossible, and many foreign goods began to disappear from the market. The boycott and divestment efforts we are seeing toward Russia today on the part of individuals and other non-state actors didn’t help make these state-level actions possible but rather followed robust state action triggered by the invasion itself. In other words, instead of being pulled by civil society, the states are leading the way in applying pressure. That makes much of the civil society action we are seeing in response to Russia seem extraneous—and often misguided to boot.

A closer look at some recent cases reveals their questionable logic. The European Film Academy boycotted all Russian films. Universities are cutting ties with Russian centers and scholars. An Australian University, for example, announced it was suspending all ties with Russian universities—presumably simply because they were Russian and not due to any connection to the government or the war. Entertainment giants have stopped movies from being released on their platforms in Russia. Russian restaurants, some owned by Ukrainians, have been the target of boycotts and even vandalism. Vodka boycotts and deshelving have also become common, and have affected brands that are not even Russian. Some particularly egregious cases take the question of who or what constitutes a target to ridiculous places. Tchaikovsky and Dostoevsky, both dead for half a century before Putin was born, were the targets of boycotts in England and Italy. The International Cat Federation even banned Russian cats, perhaps because they failed to speak out against the Russian president.

As one headline after another streamed through my timeline over the last few weeks, each one announcing a different boycott effort, I realized that this is what it actually looks like when boycotts are motivated by a haphazard, irrational animus that targets an entire people because of who they are. Ironically, this is a charge routinely leveled by supporters of Israeli apartheid against the Palestinian rights movement for using BDS. The CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, Jonathan Greenblatt, has insisted that BDS is “a continuation, a modern version if you will, of an irrational hatred of the Jewish people.” But the contrast between the efforts to hold Israel accountable and the gratuitous pile-on against anything Russian, even after economically devastating sanctions have been implemented, demonstrates just how unfounded that charge is.

The Palestinian BDS campaign has stressed the importance of not targeting individuals but rather focusing on institutional complicity with the State of Israel, which is responsible for carrying out human rights abuses against Palestinians. “BDS has consistently targeted corporations and institutions based on their complicity, not identity,” reads a March 15th statement on the movement website. “BDS does not target ordinary individuals, even if affiliated to [sic]—as opposed to representing—complicit institutions.” Take, for example, the recent boycott campaign of the 2022 Sydney Festival in Australia. The festival took Israeli government sponsorship to fund a performance by the Sydney Dance Company of an Israeli company’s choreography. The call to boycott was launched in December only after the festival refused to sever financial ties with the Israeli Embassy, and focused on the institutional connection between the festival and the government rather than targeting individual artists. Despite the material connection between the festival and the Israeli government, the boycott effort was predictably slammed by local Israel supporters as—in the words of one Australian legislator—part of the “long and ugly history” of boycotts of Jews. Links to government funding or profiteering from Israel’s human rights abuses are often downplayed or omitted in coverage of boycotts of Israeli artists, which Israel’s supporters hope to reduce to simple antisemitism.

In some of the boycotts of Russia, it has been difficult to connect the target of the boycott to complicity with the actions of the Russian government. What’s more, state-level sanctions were adopted so fast that coordinated campaigns were scarcely necessary. There was no noticeable debate, discussion, or education around government complicity (which existed in some cases and not others) because no such debate was deemed necessary. If it was Russian—or perceived to be—it wasn’t welcome.

Those behind the Russian invasion of Ukraine, an act of aggression and a blatant violation of international law, should be held accountable, and there is a role for various social actors to play in doing so. But how it is done matters. The point of BDS efforts is to try to create change, and this requires targeting government complicity, not an entire people or a culture. BDS campaigns for Palestinian rights work to point out how targets are complicit in violations either by being tied to the government of Israel or by otherwise profiting from its human rights violations. Despite this clear contrast, the use of BDS tactics for Palestinian rights has been met with significant repression. Smear campaigns tar students or human rights activists as antisemites for calling out Israeli aparthied. Legislation advanced at the state or federal level aims to restrict the First Amendment right to boycott, or to make the IHRA definition of antisemitism—which casts some legitimate criticism of Israel as antisemitic—legally binding. Israel advocates wage lawfare, using legal action or the threat of it to intimidate, silence, or tie up in legal defense the activists and organizations working for justice. These efforts are spearheaded by a significant, well-resourced collection of interest groups—in many cases, directly supported by the Israeli government—working to shield Israel from any form of accountability in the corridors of power.

There is nothing comparable when it comes to Russia here in the West, which helps to explain why Americans are cheering on sloppy efforts to target Russian actors while ethical BDS efforts for Palestinian rights are being repressed. Perhaps just as significant, the United States is itself deeply complicit in the crimes being committed against Palestinians by Israel; it is far easier to point the finger at others than to look in the mirror. This is an important reason why US sanctions on Israel would be so effective, perhaps even more so than US sanctions on Russia. Russia expects US sanctions for its behavior while Israel has been conditioned to expect only US support. Criticism from adversaries is much easier to dismiss than criticism from friends.

The ease with which Americans have joined the pile-on against anything perceived to be Russian demonstrates the difference between performative outrage and solidarity. Solidarity requires sacrifice—never as significant as the sacrifices of those you are in solidarity with, but sacrifice nonetheless. It is not supposed to be easy. If it were, it wouldn’t be necessary. The Palestinian call for international solidarity comes directly from Palestinian civil society to international civil society, so that people and institutions might push the international state system to provide justice for a population living under Israeli apartheid. Who, exactly, has asked you to boycott Russian cats—and to what end?

Yousef Munayyer is head of the Palestine/Israel Program and senior fellow at the Arab Center Washington DC. He also serves as a member of the editorial committee of the Journal of Palestine Studies and was previously executive director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights.